Need MORE Proof that Incentive Programs are Dangerous?

If you’ve read the Radical for any length of time, you’ll know that I pretty much despise the carrot-and-stick approach to managing teachers and students that seems to be all the rage in education right now (see here, here and here).

What’s completely wild is that many of the top organizational thinkers who are working largely in fields beyond education — including Authorspeak Keynote presenter Daniel Pinkagree that incentive programs almost NEVER work.

(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

Chip and Dan Heath — authors of a TON of great reads including The Myth of the Garage, a completely free Corwin eBook — are no less critical of our fascination with incentive programs than Pink.

In Myth of the Garage, they compare incentive programs to the popular urban legend of a Darwin Award winner who strapped a rocket engine to his Chevy Impala looking for the ultimate joy ride only to end up “as a human flapjack” on the side of a lonely Arizona mountain.

The Heaths write:

Incentives are like that jet engine.  There’s no question the engine will take you somewhere, fast, but it’s not always clear where.  Or who you’re going to mow down on the way.

Yet incentives are still the first resort of most managers.  We all think we’re smart enough to create the perfect carrot.

(Kindle locations 357-363)

So what makes incentive programs so dangerous — particularly in fields like education?

According to Chip and Dan Heath, incentive programs inevitably cause well-intentioned people to fall victim to a focusing illusion.  Instead of taking multiple measures into account when judging performance, we overemphasize the single variable that we are attempting to measure.

In other words, when all you are worried about measuring is how fast your car can fly down a dry desert lakebed, you tend to forget about the mountain that you’re sprinting towards at 300 miles per hour.

The Heaths write:

“To be fair, there are some contexts where one variable dominates.  If you’re employing a field sales rep who is selling a simple, self-contained product, then it probably makes sense to tie incentives to the sale.

If you’re traveling a long, straight road, the jet engine will get you there faster.

But chances are you don’t live in a one-variable world.  In your complicated, squishy, matrixed world, if you’re dreaming up an incentive plan, you’re almost certainly in the grips of a focusing illusion.”

(Kindle locations 386-391)

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a MORE “complicated, squishy, matrixed world” than education.

The honest truth is that we — teachers, principals, parents, policymakers, community leaders, students — DO care about multiple variables when looking at the outcomes of education.

Sure we want students to become better readers and writers.  Sure, mathematical competency is an essential outcome for every student.

But in an era when incentives — and pretty darn serious consequences — for both teachers and students have been tied to just two testable variables, I’ve GOT to believe that we’re in the grips of one seriously wicked focusing illusion too.

My only hope is that we’ll come to our senses and switch off the rocket before we run out of road.

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Related Radical Reads:

Bulldozing the Forests

The Monster You’ve Created

Statistically Snookered

The Unintended Consequence of Incentive Programs in Schools

 

 

 

Original Image Credit: Minty Python’s Frying Circuits 5/52 by Neal

Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on December 23, 2011

 

 

 

8 comments

  1. Ginnyp

    “Hey I opened the door for her. Where’s my sticker?” Unfortunately, this is middle school, not in a kindergarten class.

  2. Chris Irvin

    Some good points, but as an educator who works for a district that uses teacher incentives wisely, I think there is plenty of room for proper focus. We base incentives on multiple elements of the teaching profession, not on test scores. We do however see test scores correlate to quality teaching practices. The problem, as I see it, in the debate is proponents of incentives often do not know what they want (or need) to see in a class room to gain the results they want.

  3. Noreen

    Wow, that’s wonderful! I am a Montessori teacher at a Catholic school and we do not give our students rewards. They work because they love to work. My passion is against rewards for reading most of all. Books are a joy, and creating bookworms is my calling. If I give them candy when they read, they will think reading is a chore. It’s a disincentive over the long term.
    Thank you for your post.

  4. Dwight Carter

    Excellent post! In my experience, the key ingredient to getting the most out of people is a positive relationship. Daniel Pink describes two types of rewards: “if-then” and “no that.” Either way, without a positive relationship, it will only be about the reward, which has a deminishing return.
    Be Great,
    Dwight